History of innovation in Australia

While not all great ideas have been protected with intellectual property rights, people in Australia have been designing and inventing for thousands of years.

  • Everyday life
  • Medicine
  • Communications
  • Machinery

There's a proud history of innovation in Australia. From the Hills Hoist to Vegemite, some of the comforts we enjoy every day could only have been possible with the trailblazing attitude of some very creative and resourceful Australians.


Hills Hoist clothes line

Did you know that people were patenting rotary clotheslines in Australia as early as 1895? But it took World War II veteran Lance Hill's savvy business acumen and innovation to bring the invention to the public's attention. Even though his rotary clothesline wasn't a new invention — it was a copy of an expired 1925 patent — Hill's fresh approach to marketing meant that his windable clothes hoist soon dominated the market when it was introduced in 1947.

Victa rotary lawn mower

Mervyn Victor Richardson wanted a lawn mower that could cut long, thick grass and so in 1952, he produced the first Victa mower out of his garage in Sydney. The rotary action blades proved revolutionary and Victa mowers soon became an Australian backyard staple. Today, Victa mowers are exported to over 30 countries worldwide and continue to enjoy a strong reputation.

Indigenous seasonal calendars

Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples develop and maintain their seasonal calendars from generation to generation, to know the coming of seasonal food sources, breeding seasons and when plants are ready to harvest. Between 2007 and 2022, some Indigenous language groups collaborated with the CSIRO to record their own seasonal calendars and share their knowledge with the wider community. These calendars are available from the CSIRO as educational resources.

Bush glue

Refining the resin from grasses, shrubs and trees, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples developed a glue that was soft when warm but set hard once cooled. Bush glue is used for holding spear tips and woomera hooks, binding knife handles, sealing containers and baskets, repairing canoes, and much more. Bush glue has been used for thousands of years and continues to be used today.

Baby safety capsule

People have owned cars since the early 1900s and yet, right up till 1984, there was no secure way to protect babies in transit. That year, William (Bill) Bowtell and Bob Heath of an Adelaide engineering company now known as Britax Childcare, invented the baby safety capsule. Designed to lock into a standard-sized car seat, the capsule consisted of a bassinet inside a base and was named 'Safe-n-Sound'. Today, it's still considered one of the best safety child restraints worldwide.

Ether refrigeration system

Next time you use your fridge, think of Australian James Harrison who changed the face of refrigeration forever. Having invented and successfully commercialised the ice-making machine, he stretched his idea to an ether vapour compression refrigeration system which he patented as a 'refrigerating machine' in 1885. Harrison’s method of refrigeration is still used by fridges today, but the mechanism has been enhanced significantly and ether isn't used anymore.

Electric drill

We can all can thank two pioneering Aussies for this most handy piece of household equipment. In 1889, Melbourne electrical engineers Arthur James Arnot and William Brain patented the world’s first electric drill for drilling through rock faces and coal shafts. Their technology paved the way for the portable hand drills that today sit in most garages around the world.


Marn Grook

Did you know that Marn Grook (from the Woiwurung language of the Kulin people meaning 'ball' and 'game'), is believed by some historians to have been the inspiration for Australian rules football? Marn Grook involved punt kicking and some players would leap up to five feet off the ground to catch the ball, which was made of possum skin and stuffed with grass or ground charcoal. A winner could only be announced when both sides agreed that one side had played better.

Australian rules football

Known across the world as an iconic Australian sport, Australian rules football (AFL) was developed in 1858. Tom Wills and Henry Harrison wrote the first 10 rules of AFL, becoming the first in the world to codify a ball kicking game — before rugby, soccer and gridiron.


Brewarrina fish traps

The Ngemba people of Brewarrina in NSW used their advanced knowledge of rivers and fish behaviour to trap and catch large numbers of fish in the Darling River. Thousands of years old, the innovative fish traps, known as Ngunnhu, are a complex network of river stones, arranged to form ponds and channels that catch fish as they travel downstream. First Nations People in the region continue to use and maintain them.


Did you know that when Vegemite first came out in 1923, Australians were reluctant to try it? Fred Walker, whose company is now known as the Kraft Food Company, hired Dr. Cyril P Callister to develop a spread that would compete with Marmite, the preferred spread at the time. Vegemite landed on Australian shelves in 1923 but Australians were hesitant. After many tireless marketing efforts, Vegemite finally became a household staple in 1942 — 20 years after it was invented.


Even though macadamias originate in Australia, before 1988 most macadamia tree varieties came from Hawaii and were bred to suit Hawaiian conditions. In 1975, Hidden Valley Plantations, a small macadamia business in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, started a macadamia breeding program. In 1988, owner Henry Bell submitted the first application for plant breeder's rights in Australia for his Hidden Valley A4 variety. Today, it's popular in nurseries throughout Australia.


Polymer banknotes

To make our currency more difficult to counterfeit, banknotes printed on polymer — a type of plastic — were first developed through a collaboration between the Reserve Bank of Australia, the CSIRO and Melbourne University. They were first issued as currency in Australia in 1988 and have since been adopted by 23 other countries.

Australian medical innovations have led the way in helping people around the world heal or live better lives. Devices like stainless steel braces, the cochlear ear implant and more recently spray on skin, are among the innovations that have transformed healthcare for millions of people around the world.


Gardasil HPV vaccine

In 1991, Dr Ian Frazer and Dr Jian Zhou from the University of Queensland developed and patented the basic technology behind a vaccine for certain strains of HPV (human papillomavirus). The vaccine's final form was made through a collaboration between Australian and American researchers. In 2006, the Food and Drugs Administration approved the vaccine, marketed under the trade name Gardasil. The vaccine was licenced in Australia in 2007 and by 2011, Gardasil had been approved in 120 other countries.

Pain relief from mudjala bark

The Jarlmadangah Burru Aboriginal Corporation (JBAC) collaborated with Griffith University to investigate the pain-relieving properties of the mudjala — a common shrub in Northern Australia traditionally used by the Jarlmadangah Burru Community for pain relief. The collaboration led to the granting of a patent in 2004 that identified a number of active compounds from the extract of the bark that could be useful in the treatment of pain.

Protection from Hendra virus

When Queensland horse trainer Vic Rail and 14 of his horses died from a sudden and mysterious illness in 1944, the CSIRO set about trying to find the cause. They eventually identified a deadly virus transmissible from horses to humans and named it Hendra. Following more outbreaks in QLD and NSW, the CSIRO launched a world-first vaccine for horses (Equivac HeV) in 2012 — significantly minimising further possibilities of the Hendra virus spreading.

Zinc sunscreen

In 1940, Fauldings Pharmaceutical Company in Adelaide invented zinc cream — a thick white cream made from zinc oxide that physically stopped ultraviolet rays from reaching skin cells. Marketed as the ultimate protection against sunburn and produced in a range of colours, zinc sunscreen has become another famous Australian icon, synonymous with surf and sporting culture.

Regenerative medicine

Trimph injectable biomaterial

When Dr Ali Fathi from the University of Sydney broke his wrist, he was surprised to learn that no-one had yet invented an injectable that could fuse broken bones. He set about developing his own and in 2015, invented 'Trimph', an injectable water-based gel technology that hardens at body temperature and mends broken bones without surgery. His innovation greatly impressed the engineering community, and he has since founded a start-up working on different biological applications of the technology.

Recell spray on skin

Spray on skin, patented by Dr Fiona Wood from the Royal Perth Hospital in 1999, revolutionised the treatment of significant burn injuries. Instead of waiting three weeks for sheets of cultured skin to grow, aerosol-delivered cell clusters taken from a patient's healthy skin take only 30 minutes to produce. Known as Recell, this technology is a world-first and has been successfully used on more than 1,000 patients around the world.


Stainless steel braces

In 1956, Adelaide orthodontist Percy Begg worked with metallurgist Arthur Wilcock to develop and patent a stainless-steel system for straightening teeth. Until then, orthodontics involved the use of precious metals and required the whole tooth to be wrapped in wire, making orthodontic work too costly for most people. Today, there are many approaches to orthodontic treatment, yet most include aspects of the Begg philosophy and adaptations of his products.

Electronic heart pacemaker

The first pacemaker was developed by Doctor Mark C Lidwell and physicist Edgar H Booth. Lidwell used their invention — a portable machine — in 1928 to successfully revive a stillborn baby. He inserted a needle conducting small pulses of electricity into the baby's heart. After 10 minutes, the equipment was switched off, the heart continued beating and the baby made a full recovery. Today, pacemakers are fitted inside the body and are about the size of a matchbox.

Cochlear implant

In 1978, Australian doctor Graeme Clark invented the world's first bionic ear, a device that restores useful hearing in severely to profoundly deaf people. Bypassing the malfunctioning inner ear, it provides information to the auditory centres in the brain through electrical stimulation of the cochlea. This invention has greatly improved the quality of life of over 50,000 people in 120 countries and most modern cochlear implants have built on Clark's invention.

Revolutionising the way, we exchange information has been at the core of some of Australia's most ground-breaking innovations. Some of these achievements have steered the course of history, benefitting daily life and national security.


Message stick

Message sticks were commonly used across mainland Australia by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as a means of communicating. Messages were painted or carved on the stick, which was then carried over great distances. When messengers carrying the stick arrived in another group's Country, they were guaranteed diplomatic immunity. Today, message sticks are increasingly used in prominent public events as symbols of cooperation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous organisations.


Wi-Fi technology

In the 1970s, John O'Sullivan and his colleagues at the CSIRO were developing research on radio astronomy to see if they could hear the faint echoes of black holes. Fast forward to 1992, and the basis of this technology was used by O'Sullivan and the CSIRO to establish Wi-Fi — a global game-changer for the internet because up till then, people could only connect using wires and cables. Today, Wi-Fi is the most popular way to connect to the internet worldwide.


Pedal powered radio and the Flying Doctor Service

In the mid 1920’s, Alfred Traeger invented the pedal powered radio, which revolutionised communication in the outback. His sets spread across two thirds of the country and were integral to the founding of the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) in 1928. They allowed people in remote areas to call and ask for medical help. Today, the RFDS receives more than 1,000 patient contacts daily from people living in remote parts of Australia.


Message rocket

William H.G Geake, a research engineer with the Australian Imperial Force, invented the message carrying rocket in 1917 to communicate with troops up to two kilometres away during WWI. As radio was still being developed, the rocket messenger gave troops a significant advantage and was used until the end of the war.

Over the horizon radar

Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN) is an over-the-horizon radar network that monitors air and sea movements. Regular radar can't operate beyond a certain point, but JORN is operated by Australian defence forces to detect activities thousands of kilometres away. JORN was developed by the Department of Defence in 1988 and completed in 2000.

From hardware invented out of sheer necessity right in the midst of conflict to life-improving mechanisms that were refined over a longer period of time — the resourcefulness and creativity of Australian inventors have played a major role in Australia's rich history of innovation.



Woomera is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander name for a spear thrower used in hunting and warfare. Once attached to the spear, it greatly increases the speed and distance it can be thrown by using leverage. Until the invention of the self-loading rifle in the 1800s, a woomera with spear was one of the fastest weapons in the world.

Underwater torpedo

Louis Brennan patented the first practical guided missile in 1877, which had two propellers that rotated by wires. By varying the speed at which the two wires were extracted, the torpedo could be steered to the left or right by an operator on the shore. With Brennan's permission, the British government commenced work on an improved model. In 1886, it was adopted as a harbor defence torpedo and used throughout the British Empire for more than 15 years.

Gallipoli periscope rifle

In 1915, Lance Corporal William Beech invented the periscope rifle at Gallipoli. The rifle allowed a soldier standing in a trench to take accurate aim and fire without exposing himself to the enemy. The upper mirror of the periscope was fixed so that it looked along the sights of the rifle and this image was reflected in the lower mirror, into which the soldier peered. The rifles were produced in a makeshift workshop on the beach at Anzac Cove and proved to be a useful weapon, soon adopted by many front-line trenches.


Inflatable escape slide

Before the inflatable escape slide, some planes used canvas type slides which meant crews had to perform an extensive rigging procedure. In 1965 Jack Grant, a Qantas operations safety superintendent, invented an inflatable escape slide which doubles as a raft if a plane crashes into water. He then refined the specification until it was accepted by all key aviation organisations worldwide. The escape slide has since been fitted to all large jet aircraft and is now mandatory safety equipment on all major airlines. 

Black box flight recorder

Melbourne scientist Dr David Warren invented the black box flight recorder in 1961 and it completely transformed the airline industry. Virtually indestructible, the device records the last conversations between crew and other sounds inside the plane before it crashes, providing critical data in any post-crash investigation. Today, every commercial plane in the world flies with this Australian invention. Incidentally, the black box is not actually black — it's bright orange, which makes it easier to find in crash-site rubble.


Stump jump plough

In 1875, Richard Smith invented the stump jump plough as a solution to difficulties in ploughing his land at Kalkabury in South Australia’s Mallee country. He exhibited his plough at the Moonta show in 1877 and won first prize. The stump jump plough had levers that allowed the plough blades to rise out of the ground when they hit an obstacle, enabling it to jump over stumps and rocks. This was revolutionary for early settlers trying to farm mallee land as it reduced the laborious task of removing stumps and rocks from paddocks.

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